29th September 2012
But the sad secret is that streetcars of all descriptions and vintages are at best modestly successful transportation projects, at worst expensive objets d’art that very few people use. Demand for the vehicles is driven not by the public but by the dreams of land-use planners and downtown boosters who imagine that aesthetically pleasing vehicles lumbering in slow circles through walkable areas will somehow prompt a boom in economic activity. Streetcar booster Gloria Ohland has often written that streetcars should be considered “economic development projects with transportation benefits.”
Yet the fantasy that people will travel or move to a particular location purely for the pleasure of tootling around in a trolley has consistently failed to materialize. Because the urban circulator is not tailored to the needs of modern city dwellers who use mass transit to get around, there is no natural constituency to ride them. The result: Many communities get stuck with an eternal loop of empty, expensive white elephants.
And yet the people who tout these attempts to revert to the way things were in the 19th century invariably think of themselves as ‘progressives’. What’s up with that?